“Gates of the Lord: The Tradition of Krishna Paintings,” the first major U.S. exhibit of the art of the Pushtimarg, a Hindu sect of western India, is on exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago from Sept. 13 to Jan. 3, 2016. The exhibit, which features more than 100 objects celebrating Shrinathji, a form of Krishna, is being funded by the Reliance Foundation — a non-profit organization started by Mukesh and Nita Ambani in 2010 to focus on the areas of rural transformation, education, health, urban renewal, and arts, culture and heritage. Anita and Prabhakant Sinha, Indian American philanthropists in Chicago also supported the exhibit through their generous contributions.
Douglas Druick, president and director of the AIC, said he had never encountered the art of the Pushtimarg before Indian American Madhuvanti Ghose, Alsdorf Associate Curator of Indian, Southeast Asian, Himalayan and Islamic Art, brought it to his attention, but it definitely left an impression on him. “It was big and bold and decorative and joyous and intriguing and sometimes even a little funny,” Druick said. “You don’t have to know much about what you’re seeing to respond, but it does encourage you to learn more and of course that’s what we want in a museum context.”
Set to ragas highlighting each season, the exhibit takes museum-goers through the progression of Pushtimarg art from the 17th century to today, while also displaying the different tones of the pichvais, or intricately painted cloth hangings, depending on the season. Ghose explained how the pichvais are meant to hang behind svarups (sacred images) of Shrinathji in shrines. Not only the pichvai, but the shrine furnishings are changed daily and especially for festivals to represent the mood of that season.
For instance, in the summer pichvais, devotees can be seen fanning and helping cool Shrinathji, while in autumn the mood is more celebratory because of the harvests. Comprised of drawings, pichvais, paintings and historic photographs from two major private collections — the TAPI Collection of Praful and Shilpa Shah in Surat, India, and the Amit Ambalal Collection of Ahmedabad, India — the exhibit also offers information about the history of the Pushtimarg. Vallabhacharya, the founder of the Pushtimarg sect, stressed simple seva, or loving service or worship, to reach spiritual enlightenment.
Ghose explained how the art of the sect was maintained through the years by individual families who descended from Vallabhacharya, with this exhibition being the first time many of these pieces are on public display. Druick explained how the exhibit was inaugurated Sept. 11 to commemorate the speech given by Swami Vivekananda 122 years ago at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions at the AIC.
“What he preached was tolerance and understanding of difference and of different religions,” Druick said. “And that’s of course what an encyclopedic museum is about. So his message and our mission were perfectly aligned then as they are now.” The transportation of the exhibit’s delicate pichvais required a substantial sum of money that Druick said would have made the show difficult to accomplish. “That’s why the support of the show by the Ambani family and Reliance has been absolutely critical,” Druick told the media. “Because without their support, we could not have realized the show.”
Ambani said that when she was approached by AIC to sponsor the exhibit, “It was an instant yes. First and foremost, I thought it was a good way to represent the diversity of our art and culture outside India,” Ambani said. “And secondly, the most important reason was that our family is a big believer in Shrinathji.”